Ken and Joan Taylor have gifted nearly $3 million to The Princess Margaret Cancer Foundation to further research into multiple myeloma. Ken was diagnosed with the blood cancer in 2009. (Photo: The PMCF)

In January 2009, Ken and Joan Taylor were on one of their regular work trips to beautiful Hilton Head, S.C. where they founded Spinnaker Resorts in the early 1980s. Unfortunately, their trip took a turn for the worse. Ken was admitted to the hospital with a serious case of pneumonia.

To their surprise, Ken received an unexpected and startling diagnosis during his hospital stay: multiple myeloma.

With no known cure, multiple myeloma, also known as myeloma, is a blood cancer associated with the uncontrolled growth and abnormal behaviou​r of plasma cells – the white blood cells made in the bone marrow that help the body fight infection. Myeloma develops when abnormal plasma cells – cancerous cells known as myeloma cells – accumulate, making it difficult for healthy blood cells to properly develop and function.

With Princess Margaret Cancer Centre home to one of the largest and most comprehensive myeloma programs in North America, Joan says: "We never had questions about where we should go for treatment. At the time, Dr. Michael Baker advised Ken see Dr. Suzanne Trudel, a clinician-scientist at the Princess Margaret, claiming she was one of the best students that he's ever had."

Ken swiftly began treatment, including taking part in a clinical trial and stem cell transplant, under the watchful eye of Dr. Trudel at the Princess Margaret's Myeloma Clinic, which hosts one of the largest stem cell transplant programs in Canada.

Thanks to her attentive and compassionate care, Ken's cancer has been in remission for more than eight years.

Grateful for the exceptional care Ken received, the Taylor family generously gifted $1.5 million to The Princess Margaret Cancer Foundation to further Dr. Trudel's robust research portfolio focused on discovering novel therapies based on the underlying drivers of the disease.

This brings the family's total giving to the myeloma program close to $3 million.

"Despite phenomenal advancements in treatment, we have not achieved a cure for all patients," says Dr. Trudel. "Inevitably, patients' myeloma will become resistant to all available therapies.

"One of the most recent innovative approaches to target myeloma is CAR T-cell therapy, which has the demonstrated ability to use the body's own immune response to selectively kill cancer cells and overcome all conventional drug-related resistance mechanisms."

Dr. Trudel emphasizes the responses to CAR-T treatment they are seeing in patients who have failed all therapy treatments are way beyond the team's wildest dreams.

"In the vast majority of patients, CAR-T therapy annihilates basically every B-cell maturation antigen expressing cancer cell within days in the patients that do respond to standard treatment approaches," she say. "This is why there is so much excitement around the therapy."

Grateful for the Taylor family's gift, Dr. Trudel says: "Philanthropy allows us to advance bold and innovative projects that are in the earliest stages, whereas government typically finances safe and predictable projects."

With the support of their donation, Dr. Trudel is contributing to the first, in-human clinical trial using T-cell antigen coupler (TAC) therapy for myeloma developed at McMaster University in Hamilton, making the Princess Margaret one of three sites involved. The university's pre-clinical evaluations indicate reengineering TAC T-cells to target and destroy cancerous cells could be more effective and safer than CAR T-cell therapy, particularly for older patients.

Dr. Trudel is also leading a clinical trial with Dr. Armand Keating, clinician-scientist at the Princess Margaret, that involves reengineering natural killer (NK) cells – white blood cells that control the spread of tumours and viral-infected cells – to target and destroy myeloma cells, offering another potentially more effective and safer alternative to CAR T-cell therapy.

Last but not least, Dr. Trudel is launching a pre-clinical study to develop a new type of CAR T-cell therapy. Dr. Rodger Tiedemann, Senior Scientist at the Myeloma Clinic, who developed the antibody to the antigen of interest, and Dr. Naoto Hirano, a leader in T-cell receptor technology and clinician-scientist at the Princess Margaret, are collaborating with Dr. Trudel to develop the CAR T-cell manufacturing process.

"The Taylor family's gift offers us the opportunity to test big and bold ideas," says Dr. Trudel. "We can chase unconventional avenues of scientific inquiry, help attain proof of concept, and build research tools and therapeutics to help people facing myeloma live better and longer lives."

"I looked at my diagnosis as something that was going to take my life in a definite period of time," says Ken Taylor. "The fact I've lived with the disease means the Princess Margaret's researchers, like Dr. Trudel, are making exceptional progress in better understanding myeloma and advancing treatments.

"There's a night-and-day difference between the treatments available today versus 50 or 60 years ago."

When asked to share their advice for others facing myeloma, Joan says: "Do everything you can to live a happy life with supportive people around you. Have a positive attitude and be hopeful."

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